The Nuanced Discussion

Here is the promised dialogue. The subject is sexist epithets: how bad are they, are some worse than others, if they are bad then in what way are they bad, does it really matter, is it reasonable to think they are a bad thing, if so why?

James Sweet

I have accepted Ophelia’s challenge. Am I qualified? I am a male, and this is my real name. I do fancy myself a liberal, and would like to think of myself as a feminist, to the extent that men can be. So: how do I feel about sexist epithets?

Well, they’re bad. Usually. But like so many words, the degree to which that applies varies depending on context and intent. I don’t like the idea of any word being completely taboo. And while I think avoiding sexist epithets in most contexts is simply “the right thing to do” most of the time, I am skeptical of the social constructivist notion that it has a significant effect on reinforcing the undeniably huge institutional biases that persist against women.

I’m not fond of ERV’s infamous “Twatson” slur. Elevatorgate is a tricky issue for feminism in our community already, and to insert an inflammatory sexual insult into the discussion seems to me to be counter-productive at best. Then again, the ERV blog has a humorous, irreverent, youthful tone to it. ERV’s shtick is to blend serious topics like politics and gene research with the unfiltered language of youth culture. And I hate to break it to you, but the kids are still saying pretty much whatever they want whenever they feel like it.

Humor is how we explore the ugliest and nastiest parts of the human experience without completely losing our will to live in the process. We laugh so we don’t constantly cry. The slur against Watson wasn’t all that funny, in my opinion, and probably hurt the quality of the debate. But it’s not going to stop me from reading her blog, nor do I think it disqualifies her from being a feminist. I say, let her know some of us feel that sort of language is damaging, and move on. Hey, maybe someday she’ll even change her mind!

Ophelia Benson

It’s true that ERV specializes in a rowdy, funny, raunchy, say-it-all style, which is one that I like a lot when it’s well done (and Abbie Smith does it well). But that doesn’t commit me to liking everything of that kind, much less to thinking everything of that kind is good. (Good in what sense? For the purposes of this discussion: not harmful, not worrying, not inimical to certain liberal values, not politically dubious.)

I never, for instance, liked “Mooneytits and Cockenbaum” as nicknames for Mooney and Kirshenbaum, and I never used it. I thought it was gratuitously sexist. A commenter at ERV coined it but ERV adopted it and then adapted it to “Tittycocks” – which, again, is just gratuitously sexist all around. Why tits? Why cock? No reason, except mockery. I like quality mockery, but not mere abuse. A humorous, irreverent, youthful tone can turn into a nasty bullying one all too easily.

The oddity that this kind of mockery reveals is that some kinds of epithets and nicknames are acceptable while others – even to raunchy say-it-all types – are not. “Bitch” and “cunt” are considered edgy and funny while “nigger” and “kike” are not. People who would never use racial epithets are happy to talk about bitches. Why is that? What is the difference? Racism is taken seriously while sexism is not; why is that?

James Sweet

Jane, you ignorant slut.

Though Jane Curtin’s character gets laughs with “pompous ass” every time, that one famous line from the classic recurring SNL skit is what everybody remembers. Curtin’s character’s behavior is unexpected and defies the audience’s expectations, thereby tickling their funny bone; but it’s not until Akroyd’s character lets loose with what Ophelia has been calling an “identity epithet” that social convention is shattered and the audience becomes truly affected. The bit also works because it’s pulled off with excellent comedic timing, and even tries to actually say something of value — in this case about the escalating incivility in television debate shows (if Curtin’s opening remarks seem tame, remember they didn’t have Fox News in the late ’70s). But still, the SNL bit simply could not have worked if it weren’t so deliciously offensive.

Unfortunately for purposes of debate, I have to agree with you that “Twatson” and “Tittycocks” are just not all that funny. But I guess for me the fact that erv was at least nominally trying to be funny makes me less inclined to get bent out of shape about it. I felt similarly when some commenters at Ed Brayton’s Dispatches blog started using a pun on Orly Taitz’s name which seemed to me to be not very funny and that held misogynist overtones: I avoided using the epithet myself, but I pretty much ignored it when others did because I know there was no misogynist intention, and as stated earlier I am skeptical about the magnitude of the sociological impact.

I would very much like to explore the parallel with racial epithets, continuing this idea of funny vs. trying-and-failing-to-be-funny, but alas I am rapidly closing in on my allotted word count already. That potential powderkeg will have to wait until the next round.

Ophelia Benson

But was ERV trying to be funny, even nominally? That is, was she (even nominally) trying to be funny and nothing else? Were the commenters at ERV trying to be funny and nothing else? If I had thought that, I don’t think I would have gotten bent out of shape about it either. I wouldn’t have admired it, but I could have ignored it.

The reason epithets are fraught is that they express hostility, not to say rage and hatred. Of course there’s a jokey element to the torrent of insults at ERV, but it’s only an element. It’s combined with truly virulent anger and loathing – and not all of it has even an element of joking.

I wonder how and if the ERV discussion (to give it that honorific) would have been different if Rebecca Watson were black as well as female. I wonder if that would have inhibited some of the sexist epithets, and I wonder if there would have been an equivalent barrage of racist epithets. We can’t know, but my guess is that there wouldn’t.

Let’s treat the guess as right for purposes of argument. Why would that be? Why are racist epithets more taboo than sexist epithets? Why is racism taken with the utmost seriousness while sexism is often treated as a joke?

I don’t know the answer, but I suspect and fear that it boils down to Phil Molé’s point in “The Invisibility of Misogyny”:

It’s not just the fact that misogyny is invisible that we need to face – it’s also the fact that this invisibility is a large part of what makes it the enormous problem it is. We cannot begin to properly address misogyny and the harm it causes unless we start being able to see it.

James Sweet

I might flippantly reply that, no, of course if Watson were African-American there would be no racial epithets punned into her name, because there are no racial slurs (that I am aware of, at least) which rhyme with Watson. But I suppose that’s a cop-out.

There’s a short sketch in the cult classic Kentucky Fried Movie where the punchline is a white guy screaming “nigger” at a half-dozen black men. I thought it was edgy and funny and not at all racist. Michael Richards’ notorious rant was not so funny, but I also don’t think it was particularly racist, or at least not intended to be so. Richards practices a caustic brand of hate-the-audience comedy, and I’m sure in his mind he was merely extending that paradigm. I daresay it almost worked on that level, if it hadn’t left such an awful taste.

But these are both a far cry from the pun on Watson’s name. Using an epithet to target a specific individual raises the bar of acceptability even higher; I get that. Even still, I might point to this example of racial stereotypes being used to attack a specific individual — I suspect most readers of B&W would find that both acceptable and hilarious. I don’t mean this to be a direct parallel, but rather to show that, at least in principle, language that would be blatantly racist in one context can, in the context of humorous criticism, become indispensable.

Though it will once again disappoint those hoping for a genuine opponent, I must concede that overt sexism is still tolerated far more than racism, both in comedy and in serious discourse.  As to how best to change that, I’d rather focus on gradual consciousness-raising, rather than making a scandal out of one instance.

I prefer this not only for tactical reasons, but also because it’s ultimately a judgment call.  We both agree “Twatson” crossed the line, but we might find other examples where we disagree.  Perhaps some would say the Michael Steele bit crossed the line.  I just can’t bring myself to do more than issue a simple, “I think that’s in bad taste,” and then move on.

Ophelia Benson

Gradual consciousness-raising and making a scandal out of – or, to put it another way, taking a close look at – one instance are not mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact they’re more synergistic than exclusive. Taking a close look at particular instances is one way of raising consciousness.

Arguably that’s part of what we’ve been doing throughout this broader discussion (meaning the one at B&W and elsewhere, not just this exchange). I think some people have said they’ve modified their thinking as a result of the discussion; that would be another word for consciousness-raising. (No doubt some have modified their thinking in what I would consider the wrong direction; is that consciousness-lowering? Well, if it’s convinced them that they should do more and nastier epithet-mongering, I would say yes. If it’s a matter of heightened attention, whatever the outcome, I might say no.)

Taking a close look at habits and customs and ways of talking is what consciousness-raising was always about. That’s not really the same thing as making a scandal of something. It can lapse into that, no doubt; it can become just some kind of Higher Gossip; but anything can become anything. Part of the point of setting up a Nuanced Discussion was to try to get away from the scandal/gossip aspect.

At any rate, a disadvantage of gradual consciousness-raising is that it doesn’t always happen, that is, movement is not always inexorably upward or forward. In some ways feminism has lost ground recently, or rather, feminism has always been losing ground in some places while it gains some in others. It’s never been and isn’t now on some unstoppable glide path to perfection. We (those of us who think it’s a good thing) have to keep nudging it along, in a variety of ways.

Corwin Sullivan

Thanks for inviting me to step in at this point. My perspective on “sexist epithets” (a term I don’t especially like, but will stick with for now) is that they’re loaded with much less inherent sexism than you and many others have been arguing. They can certainly be easily used to express misogynistic opinions, but then so can “woman” when said with the right scornful emphasis. Tone and context are everything.

Taking up arms against words like “bitch” and “cunt” is in my opinion a simplistic, knee-jerk way to combat sexist attitudes. Even if you win that battle, you may be left with a bunch of embittered sexists who have changed their vocabulary but not their thinking. There’s also collateral damage, because many of those same epithets are punchy, expressive words that come in handy sometimes and can be used in basically non-sexist ways. The English language could get along without them, but they add spice and colour.

Finally, and to address something that came up earlier, I actually do think there are good reasons why sexist epithets tend to be perceived as less serious than racial ones. The main one is the point that Ken Pidcock made in comment #34: racial epithets are more likely to be perceived as attacking the whole group, rather than one individual. Call a man a “nigger”, and you’re saying that you despise him just for belonging to a group you hold in contempt. Call a woman a “cunt”, and you’re saying that you despise her specifically. Some of the vitriol directed at her may splash over and end up spattering womankind in general, but in my view this effect is both secondary and very context-dependent. Would you agree?

P.S. Apparently my spell-checker doesn’t even recognise “cunt” as a word. It’s a feminist conspiracy!

Ophelia Benson

I don’t think I’ve been arguing that sexist epithets are loaded with inherent sexism. If I have I take it back. I’ve meant to be arguing that they’re loaded with contingent sexism (and that they’re just loaded – but still contingently). I don’t think there’s anything magic about the arrangement of the letters n, u, t, c in a particular order that causes them to radiate sexism; I just think that in this world at this time the word is sexist (with possible exceptions for regional variation), just as in this world at this time some words are racist, when used as epithets. I agree (of course) that tone and context are highly relevant – lovers can use the words very differently; so can friends. (On the other hand if they use them around other people, things become less simple – but tone and context matter there, too.)

I think the embittered sexists who have changed their vocabulary but not their thinking are an unlikely scenario, because in fact they won’t change their vocabulary unless they change their thinking. They won’t change their vocabulary unless they become persuaded that, at least, the antagonism isn’t worth it. That’s a start.

Many of the epithets add spice to the language – but I’m not talking about dozens of words here! I’m talking about three or four, really – cunt, bitch, twat, and maybe pussy. Do we feel as if the language is bland and spiceless in the absence of “nigger”? I doubt it. Mind you, “bitch” does have a lot of uses…but I’m hitting the word limit.

I don’t agree with your last claim, and even if you are right about it, that just re-states the same question over again – why does “nigger” name a group while “cunt” names a particular individual? I don’t think that’s the case, and if it is, why is it?

James Sweet

I agree with Corwin that at least some uses of what we have been calling “sexist epithets” are not inherently sexist, nor do they even carry the “contingent sexism” that Ophelia refers to. The classic example for me is the use of the verb “to bitch” as in “to complain excessively”. While the colloquialism clearly has misogynist origins, the modern perception of it is so divorced from its etymology that I see no problem with it. I’ve made a personal decision to avoid it, but I have absolutely zero problem with somebody using that particular “sexist epithet” in that manner.

“Bitch” as a noun for a mean or vindictive female is more problematic, as is using “pussy” to indicate weakness. “Bitch” is disproportionately applied to women, and “pussy” to men, which indicates that our contemporary sensibilities about the words’ meanings are still deeply intertwined with their gender-relevant origins.

The words “twat” and “cunt” present a conundrum. If one were willing to completely ignore cultural context, one might convincingly argue that it was no different than calling someone a “dick”. However, my feeling is that within a cultural context where female sexuality is too often seen as something nasty and sinful, in dire need of being repressed (compare the respective connotations of the words “slut” and “stud”), using a word for the female genitalia as an insult is treading into dangerous territory.

On the flip side, I wonder at times if by avoiding these words we are inadvertently reinforcing that same negative image of female sexuality. “Oh, you can’t call somebody a ‘cunt’, that’s dirty.” I suppose this is why I have adopted such an ambivalent stance: Each individual use of “cunt” as an insult probably contributes to negative attitudes, yet paradoxically, strictly avoiding these words altogether may be even worse.

Corwin Sullivan

To some extent, embittered, vocabulary-conscious forms of misogyny are already with us. Just take a look at Angry Harry, a website that avoids those dreaded epithets but features articles with titles like “Feminism causes traffic congestion” (he’s not kidding, either). Equally, do you really think that Abbie Smith is misogynistic? One can’t tell misogynists from non-misogynists simply by keeping track of who likes to toss around words like “cunt” and “bitch”. Policing language in that superficial sense is no substitute for taking the time to understand what people are actually saying.

Returning to the distinction between “nigger” and “cunt”, I think they simply evolved differently and have non-analogous meanings. “Nigger” just means “black person”, with a strong connotation of hostility and contempt. The difference between “black person” and “nigger” is not unlike the difference between “sex worker” and “whore” – the alternative terms refer to exactly the same set of people, but one is a neutral descriptor whereas the other conveys loathing for everyone falling in that set. “Cunt”, as an insult, doesn’t just mean “woman” – it means a particularly bad woman, a woman whose behaviour or persona is somehow deeply objectionable. Or actually, it means a bad person, considering that “cunt” is quite often directed at men. It fits women better, and seems more forceful when directed at a woman, but is that really enough to make it a sexist word?

James:

The comparison between “cunt” and “dick” is interesting. In my experience, “cunt” is normally seen as a more serious insult, and I think this has to do with negative perceptions of female sexuality (and, conversely, a traditional sense that referring to the naughty bits of women somehow violates their purity). I agree that scrupulous avoidance of “cunt” might have the effect of reinforcing those perceptions.

Ophelia Benson

Again, “tossing around” words like “cunt” and “bitch” is one thing, because as you said, context matters. But as I said, epithets of that kind used in anger are a pretty good index of misogyny. Of course policing epithets is no substitute for understanding what people are saying, but that’s a false dichotomy; one can do both, and if people are using epithets, one may well have to.

Nigger hasn’t always had a strong connotation of hostility and contempt, actually. It used to be just the word for black person. Of course, it was the word for black person in a world where hostility and contempt for black people were simply normal. That’s why the connotation of hostility and contempt became more obvious as that world shrank and went on the defensive. It was no longer just normal to use a dismissive slang word for black people. To the angriest misogynists, all women are bitches or cunts, and that’s why the words have the aura of hatred that they do.

I think James is probably right about total avoidance. Corwin told me of an amusing use of “cunt” by a woman he knows (I hope he doesn’t mind if I steal it): she called the uncomfortable seat of her bike a cunt-buster. If women can reclaim the word that way, that’s good. No one uses “female genitalia” as an epithet, and various slang words have been adapted and adopted over time; maybe current epithets will be future nicknames. Fine. It’s just that we’re not there yet.

Corwin Sullivan

I think it’s time for a couple of partial concessions. First, I accept that there probably are some men out there who think of all women as bitches and cunts, and that when used in this sense the words function a lot like “nigger”. However, I’ve never heard anyone talk like this, and I suspect it’s an extremely rare mindset – limited, as you say, to the angriest misogynists. I’d rather not let the snarlings of such people influence how the rest of us express ourselves.

My second partial concession is that I agree that frequent use of “bitch” and “cunt” in anger should be a bit of a red flag. The hypothesis that someone who did this was a misogynist would deserve careful consideration. But before declaring the hypothesis proven (or adequately tested and not rejected, for any Popperians out there), I would want to look at the specifics of how the person was using those words, and at other aspects of his behaviour towards women. More to the point, I wouldn’t consider occasional use of those words to describe women who really were being horrible to be an indicator of misogyny at all.

The upshot is that I don’t think it serves any sensible purpose to toss the words we’re talking about in a box labelled “sexist epithets – never use as insults”. Maybe a box labelled “gendered epithets – use with some care” would be reasonable. “Bitch” and “cunt” are gendered in the sense that they refer literally to a female animal and a female body part, and function differently depending on whether they’re directed at a woman or a man. But no matter how hard I try to see actual sexism in calling, say, Lady MacBeth a cunt, I just can’t come up with anything convincing. Can you?

Ophelia Benson

I don’t think it’s possible to prove that any particular person is a misogynist, or that that’s what’s required to make a convincing case for the badness of using sexist epithets. It’s also not really the point; the point is more that the use of the worst sexist epithets scatters misogyny around, the way a wet dog scatters drops around when it shakes itself. That’s the work that epithets do – they spread hatred or contempt or both from person to person or to group.

I can’t prove this either, but it seems to me to be something that belongs on the shelf labeled “common knowledge.” Of course what we think is common knowledge can often be wrong, and part of the point of this discussion is to question exactly this common knowledge – but to me it’s still a strain on credulity to think that epithets don’t work that way. Explain it to me. Explain why epithets don’t do what most people think they do.

Isn’t that why parents try to teach children not to use them? Isn’t that why adults don’t use them in various formal or professional contexts? Of course epithets can always be used ironically among friends, but when they are used “sincerely” – when they are meant, then their point is to express contempt.

I don’t know if I can come up with anything more convincing than what I’ve already said, to convince you that calling Lady Macbeth a cunt would be sexist. I think it’s just a matter of how the word is used at this particular moment in time: it’s used as a dire insult; it’s the harshest name one can call a woman; it refers to the female genitalia. I have a hard time seeing how, given all that, it could be anything but sexist.

Corwin Sullivan

You seem to be agreeing that ironic use of epithets among friends is pretty much okay. Is that really your position? One implication, I would think, is that if enough groups of friends start doing this then ironic use of epithets will become pretty much okay in society at large (in the kinds of informal settings where one might currently say “piss” or “damn”). The UK may already be there, at least with “cunt” among younger people.

That leaves us with non-ironic use of epithets as insults, which is of course the hardest case from my point of view. It’s probably worth talking at this point about what properties, specifically, would make an epithet sexist. In my opinion, a sexist epithet is one conveying the idea that one sex is somehow inferior to the other.

I may return next time to Lady Macbeth (I apologise for inserting an unwarranted capital B into her name in my last post), but for now I’d like to propose a rough two-dimensional framework for thinking about insulting words in the context of this discussion. One dimension is severity, and the other is level of sexism. “Blockhead” would score low on both, since it’s a mild insult that can’t be taken to refer to either sex. “Shithead” is at least somewhat higher on the severity axis, but still non-sexist. I would put “chicks” high on group offensiveness, since it’s a mildly disparaging synonym for women in general (or maybe young women, but not women who behave in some particular way). However, it’s low on the severity scale.

I would definitely put “cunt” way above “prick” on severity, but I would put both rather low on sexism. You’ll have to guess my reasons (and you probably can), since I’m out of words.

Ophelia Benson

Yes, that’s really my position. Yes, I think that could happen, and that would be a good thing. It could happen that “cunt” became an endearment generally, as opposed to in private, and then it would become pretty useless as an epithet, so it wouldn’t be used as one any more, and that would be a good thing. The UK isn’t there yet as far as I know, because the epithet use hasn’t been rendered feeble.

It doesn’t seem very likely that that will happen though, because people who like the epithet-use will keep it alive.

I have a different idea of what sexist means, which is that it draws on an existing and entrenched idea that one sex is indeed inferior to the other. I think your “somehow inferior to the other” is interesting, because it’s surely not a secret “how” women are seen as inferior to men, is it? Women are supposed to be stupider, weaker, more passive and manipulative, less ambitious and talented, and so on.

I think we agree on the severity dimension, so that leaves the sexism one. It’s tricky apportioning sexism because it makes a difference that only one sex is generally, historically, semi-officially considered inferior. In a sense “prick” and “putz” and the rest are sexist, but in another sense they’re really not; they’re more like epithetty (to coin an adjective). “Cunt” doesn’t work like that. In another world it could, but in this one it doesn’t. Maybe some day in the future it will, but at this time it doesn’t.

Corwin Sullivan

The comparison between “prick” and “cunt” may deserve more exploration. I’ve always thought of the two words as working in approximately the same way, though with different degrees of potency. They both literally refer to sex organs, and when used as insults they accuse a person of being unpleasant, even destructive. Hurled angrily, they work better against one gender than another, although I would argue that “prick” is the more sex-specific of the two. When did you last hear a woman called a “prick”? I wouldn’t dispute that “cunt” acquires a little extra force when used against a woman as opposed to a man, or that calling a woman a “cunt” is a much nastier insult than calling a man a “prick”.

But why exactly is “cunt” the nastier of the two words? I’m sure there’s something to your insight that “cunt” draws on an entrenched (though hopefully fading) idea that women are inferior. However, I don’t think this does more than add a small amount of sting. Surely the idea of female inferiority is fading. More to the point, I don’t think “cunt” really references weakness, stupidity, manipulativeness, or any of the other stereotypically female qualities that you mentioned. I connect it more with behaviour that is simply unpleasant and damaging. I think a bigger reason that “cunt” is nastier than “prick” is that female body parts are seen as more taboo than male ones, which in turn has more to do with female purity than female inferiority.

The reason I suggested that a sexist epithet would have to imply that one sex was “somehow inferior” is that I wouldn’t call a word genuinely sexist unless it had connotations pointing to some inferior quality. The word “chick”, as I’ve always understood it, does this job by carrying a mild implication that women are not worth taking seriously (a classic stereotype). “Cunt” just implies that someone is being a real pain in the neck, and lord knows that men and women can both do this perfectly well.

Ophelia Benson

Ah, why indeed. I wonder, actually (and some expertise would be useful here) if “putz” is closer to the nasty-value of “cunt” than “prick” is. I had always thought it was interchangeable with “schmuck,” but I read somewhere fairly recently that “putz” is considered vastly worse – which promptly made me wonder how many times I had inadvertently used a much harsher insult than I had intended to. (Probably not all that often; I don’t get out much.) Maybe English just doesn’t happen to have a putz-equivalent while Yiddish does, in which case maybe the disparity is just random and there is no “why.” That would be consoling, in a way.

I wouldn’t say that the idea of female inferiority is exactly fading though. It’s losing territory, but not fading – where it still rules, it’s virulent. It’s probably more virulent now than in the past, because feminism really pisses people off if they already hate women anyway.

You could be right about female body parts, which could have as much to do with anatomy as it does with ideas about purity – vagina dentata, fishy smells, all that. An outy is less scary than an inny.

“A real pain in the neck” isn’t right, surely. It’s much worse than that. It’s not an irritation-word, it’s a hatred-word, a rage-word. And I think it is sexist, probably because women aren’t allowed to be that kind of bad. There’s something about the combination of being physically smaller and weaker and being the-cunt-kind-of-bad that is worse – more disgusting, more engraging – than a man being that kind of bad. Women like that are figures of horror – literature is full of them: Clytemnestra, Medea, Lady Macbeth as you mentioned, the evil stepmothers of fairy tale. They’re seen as sinister in a way that men seldom are, no matter what their crimes.

Corwin Sullivan

Your point about women not being “allowed to be that kind of bad” is really interesting. A lot of people seem to experience some dissonance when thinking about a Medea or a Lady Macbeth, but does it really arise just because women tend to be physically smaller and weaker? Or does it also have something to do with a traditional view of women as weak and passive, but also virtuous? We’ve looked at the notion of “sexist epithets” from several different angles now, and I keep coming back to the idea that they interact with gender in ways that are much more complicated than tapping into some straightforward notion of female inferiority.

This complexity is a big part of my reason for not wanting to just dump those words into a “do not use” box. Taking them away from misogynists also takes them away from people who may want to deploy them in more interesting and nuanced ways, and I would consider that to be an unacceptable level of collateral damage.

More broadly, however, I would suggest that railing against the use of any supposedly offensive word entails attacking the symptom rather than the disease. Complaining about the vocabulary used to express an idea becomes a distraction from confronting the idea itself, and also leads to pointless arguments with people who simply don’t appreciate constantly being told to watch their language.

The other problem with trying to make a word taboo is that it unavoidably helps to invest that word with power. We’ve been talking about why “cunt” is perceived as being worse than “prick”, and I think we’ve come up with a couple of good reasons. But maybe “cunt” is a more potent insult partly because, well, people get more upset about it.

Let me close by saying that I’ve found this to be a fun and thought-provoking discussion. Thanks for inviting me to participate.

Ophelia Benson

No, I don’t think the dissonance arises just because women are on average smaller and weaker; I think it’s complicated, and that there are a number of reasons. Women are the mothering sex, so hardness, coldness, anger, aggression all seem more threatening in women. There’s also the familiar sexual ambivalence – women who say no are bitches, women who say yes are whores; in short, lose-lose. We both think it’s complicated.

I haven’t actually said “never say ‘cunt’ no matter what” – I’ve said “don’t use sexist epithets.” I think that leaves plenty of room to use the words in more interesting and nuanced ways.

I partly agree with you about taboo and power; I think that has happened to me to some extent just because of this discussion. On the other hand, I think that has not happened socially with “bitch” despite years of trying to “reclaim” it; it seems to be more harsh than it was, not less.

I too have found this both fun and interesting. Thank you and James very much for participating.

About the Author

James Sweet is a research engineer and father of two.  He is also the author of the blog No Jesus, No Peas where he explores topics such as atheism, politics, armchair philosophy, and cooking.

Corwin Sullivan is a Canadian vertebrate palaeontologist based in Beijing.

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